A woman invented improv comedy. Three female improvisers follow her example at the 2019 Sarasota Improv Festival.
Women are a driving force in the world of improv comedy. Don’t stop the presses. That’s old news. It’s been that way since Viola Spolin wrote the book on improv in 1963. Literally. Her “Improvisation for the Theater” set the pattern for the art form as we know it today.
The women of improv comedy still honor Spolin’s legacy. But the best are inventors in their own right. They’re bored with rehashing old stuff. (Even the good old stuff.) In the true improv spirit, they want to try something new. Totally new.
Three of these fearless women will take the stage at the 11th annual Sarasota Improv Festival at Florida Studio Theatre. Each is an improv fest veteran. Each is funny as hell.
We know because we spoke to them recently. Improv artists that they are, they each delivered hilarious, laser-sharp answers on the spot.
Comedy Begins Where the Map Ends
Carla Cackowski will make the scene at FST with Quartet, this year’s headliner. The rest of the year, she’s a trooper on the improv circuit; she packs her calendar with gigs at clubs and festivals as one-fourth of Quartet and one-half of Orange Tuxedo (her husband, Craig Cackowski, is the other half) while collaborating with more improv troupes than we can count. We’re tired just writing about it, but Cackowski thrives on a heavy schedule. Why?
First, because she’s a storyteller. With all due respect to Viola Spolin, Cackowski’s not a big fan of improv games. Her style of improv comedy revolves around character. As in the hard-wired flaws of the human heart. “People are nuts” is the basic premise. Cackowski builds her scenes on that. That brand of improv isn’t easy, and it’s not a gimmick. Keeping it real takes a lot of practice.
Secondly, because Cackowski’s an explorer. She’s drawn to uncharted territory. (Quartet shares her pioneering reputation.) Going to new places is what Cackowski lives for. And when you’re performing show after show, you’ve got no other choice. The safe stuff gets old very quickly in a heavy rotation. You’ll come up with new stuff, whether you like it or not. But there’s a catch.
Exploring terra incognita can be rewarding. But it’s also risky. You might find gold, or a bear might find you. Why take the risk?
“Because I hate the alternative,” Cackowski said. “Improv artists who play it safe fall into stale patterns — and to me that’s the real risk. Fighting that tendency takes guts. If you want to stay edgy, you can’t play it safe! You have to keep trying new, untested stuff. Maybe the audience loves you. Maybe you bomb. Either way, you’ll move forward. It’s the only way you can.”
Improv Icons: The unknown who doesn’t quit until becoming an icon.
Mixing it Up
Stacey Smith will be shaking things up at FST with ImprovBoston (the mad inventors of American improv comedy) and StaceJam (her one-woman band). In some of her shows, she’s also added a foul-mouthed puppet to the improv equation. Wild, crazy stuff. But here’s a method to Smith’s madness.
The first commandment of the improv gospel is “Yes, and” — i.e., never deny, always add. Smith has added a new commandment: “Improv, and.” You like the taste of improv? You’ll love the taste of improv and puppets. Or improv and musical theater.
Smith practices what she preaches. While sticking to a strong storyline in the Second City tradition, she loves to add a little something extra. In one routine, she slays the audience with a manic marionette. (Figuratively.) And her StaceJam cooks up a new Broadway-style musical comedy on the spot. What drives Smith to mix things up?
“I’d be bored if I didn’t constantly challenge myself,” she said. “My audience would too. Adding a little something extra keeps it interesting for both of us. And it makes my show stand out.”
Smith definitely stands out. And she knows it. Nothing wrong with a healthy ego. (You need one if you’re spilling your guts every night.) But Smith also plays well with others. She doesn’t merely share the stage with her fellow improv performers. They’re essential to her creative process.
“Improv is constantly evolving,” she said. “That doesn’t just happen. People make it happen. Maybe it’s you. Or maybe it’s the performers in your troupe or some other troupe. If you want to stay relevant, you can’t ignore what they’re doing and stay stuck in your own thing. You’ve got to keep asking: ‘What’s Will Luera up to? What’s Aidy Bryant up to?’ You’ve got to pay attention. If you don’t, you’ll be left behind.”
Improv Icons: Aidy Bryant and a list that goes on forever.
In the Zone
Kaci Beeler will shake things up at FST with two Austin-based improv companies — Parallelogramophonograph (aka PGraph) and Available Cupholders. If Beeler is a typical resident, Austin’s reputation as a slacker city is undeserved. Her work ethic is relentless. Her troupes are both sidesplitting and crowd-pleasing. They keep her busy.
In a typical week, Beeler might do two or three shows. In a heavy week, she’ll do far more. Add in rehearsal time? That clocks in at 10 to 15 hours of improv per week. That’s just comedy. (Demanding freelance work pays the bills.) It’s a heavy pace, all right. And Beeler’s been keeping it up for the past 14 years. Why does she work so hard? Because she loves the work.
“You could drag me out of bed, and I’d put on an improv show in my living room,” she said. “[But]Please don’t. I love sleep.”
Love aside, practice makes perfect. And Beeler gets plenty of improv practice.
“People talk about being ‘in the zone’ for sports and creativity,” she said. “The more you improvise, the faster you can access the zone.”
Once Beeler reaches that zone, she loves making people laugh. But that’s not all she loves. Her improv troupes agree.
“Humor is very important to us,” she said. “But we also reach for beautiful moments, real discoveries and even something a little bittersweet. Ideally, we’ll create a moment that’s sticks with you long after you’ve left the theater.”
Improv Icons: Kate McKinnon, Molly Shannon, Ali Wong and Natasia Demetriou
Cackowski, Smith and Beeler don’t define themselves as “female performers.” They’re focused on their art, not their identity. But they’re not oblivious to the bad old days of improv past. A woman might have co-invented the art form, but it was a boys’ club in many improv troupes for many years. These three women have seen (and helped create) that change. And they like what they see.
Beeler said it best: “I wish I’d seen more female performers when I first got into improv. My journey would’ve been a lot more fun! Now I am seeing more women in the spotlight — and queer performers, people of color and different backgrounds and abilities as well. I love it. Their voices need to be heard, and improv needs to break out of the hyper-masculine mold. If we want to stay relevant to diverse audiences, we need to challenge our expectations. If we do, this art form will only continue to grow in the years ahead.”